Beth Grossman encourages civic engagement through participatory art

Beth Grossman has worked as an artist full-time for the past 25 years. As a social practice artist, she creates site-specific experiential work designed to engage the public in matters of political understanding and civic participation.

“I use art as a kind of bait to get people into conversations about social issues that we should care about,” she says. “When we get together and connect we can think more clearly and creatively. It’s unlimited, the kind of potential we have when we get together.”

While her lifelong training in the arts has included everything from studying at The Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis while in high school to researching and performing shadow puppetry in Malaysia as an undergraduate, Grossman found her calling as a political justice activist artist after earning a Masters in Performance Studies at NYU, focusing on experimental and political theatre with a focus on feminist performance art.

“The art of influencing government with art has become one of my specialties,” Grossman says. “Lately I’ve been both teaching and encouraging people how to interact with city government. I think people are really getting the clear idea after this election that American politics is not a meritocracy – you need to have clout and deep financing to have an impact in national government.” The greatest impact an individual citizen can have, she says, is at the local level.

Searching for Democracy

As a child Grossman attended city council meetings with her mom, who was a caucus delegate in Minnesota elections and civic activist.

“I learned about how our democracy can work on a local level and how you can have an influence there,” she explains. The decisions made in our local government can and do have a greater impact in our day-to-day lives. If everyone is getting involved in making our democracy work and engaging on a day-to-day and local level, then democracy can really work on a larger scale.”

Grossman has been using art to engage people in the political process since the fourth grade. Her first-ever politically motivated piece was a demonstration again the city building a highway basically in the front yard of her childhood home in Minneapolis. There was dancing, music, art, costumes – all elements of her artistic practice up to that point. “I didn’t realize that was ‘social practice’ when I was a kid putting together this demonstration and writing songs and making costumes. That was theatre; that was music. That was what I did.”

Much of her social practice now is the result of her upbringing, which not only included exposure to political activism at a very young age but also being raised Jewish and embracing concepts such as “Tikkun Olam,” a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to heal and repair the world.

“That is at the heart of my philosophy on where my art comes from,” she explains. “As artists we have the ability to make the invisible visible and bring these social issues to light. It’s a different kind of contribution we’re making but it’s absolutely crucial work.”

With each of her projects, Grossman tries to have multiple points of entry to “invite people in” to her work. “When you walk into a commercial gallery or museum, it’s intimidating for a lot of people. It’s somewhat of an exclusive environment and people feel left out. They’re looking for a point of entry. I try to work that into every one of my projects so there’s different levels of entry.”

With each project she attempts to create three points of entry. The first is to create something beautiful that involves a lot of craft and handwork that anyone can enjoy on some level. The second is to utilize the convention of nostalgia, evoking memory and history to encourage learning from the past and making good decisions going forward. The third is to use humor, so that we can all laugh together with ourselves.

“I am interested in the iconic texts of our culture, history, sense of identity, our place in nature, and civic engagement. These are the kinds of issues I want to bring people together to explore deeper.”

Seats of Power

Every project has some sort of participatory component so that people are interacting with each other, the public or with local government. After living all over the world in places like Italy, Malaysia, Norway, New York, and Minneapolis, Grossman now resides in Brisbane, California, located in the center of the Bay Area just 10 minutes from San Francisco but with only about 4,000 residents. For the past 20 years, she has been deeply involved in working with local government as an independent arts organizer and environmental activist.

“I always wanted to become civically engaged in local government, but in cities like Oakland or New York it is a lot more difficult and I didn’t have anyone to teach me,” she explains. When I settled in Brisbane, she says, “I wanted to be able to walk into city hall and have everyone know me and be happy to see me. That was my goal.”

She was fortunate to befriend the former city manager, who mentored her on how to interact with local government. Grossman herself now gives talks on how to work with with local government.

“I have been making it one of my missions to share what I’ve learned in my work through workshops and talks on civic engagement. In a small town I have been able to have a real impact. “Homeland security” is the community you live in. It’s your local government. That’s the message I’m trying to put out because there’s so much despair right now.”

This is also at the core of her work as a social practice artist today.

Seats of Power is a civic engagement project that seeks to dismantle the barriers between local California elected public officials and their constituents using art, film, personal histories and humor. Grossman invited ten public officials in Brisbane, California to immortalize their derrieres in the name of art and civic engagement. She wanted to use the installation to encourage people think about leadership, civic responsibility, and to humanize the other side of the podium. After interviewing the public officials about being in positions of power, she took photographic impressions of their pant-seat bottoms, converted the photos into textiles, upholstered chair seats and exhibited them at Brisbane City Hall.

Seats of Power used laughter to segue into a more serious discussion about the nature of political power and civic engagement. Visitors to the exhibit were invited to walk up a red carpet to be seated in a throne-like chair. In the “hot seat,” they were asked to share their thoughts on how it feels to be an empowered citizen.

Searching for Democracy

Another project, Searching for Democracy, found her visiting historical sites, the context of which are very important to the concept of American democracy – the White House, the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore – as well as places that represent the widespread American value of capitalism, like shopping malls and the New York Stock Exchange. Grossman learned how to make quill pens and write in the Constitutional script. She is continuing to scribe the entirety of the United States Constitution on 50 moneybags that had been discarded by banks and the U.S. Mint after the Great Recession of 2008.

Though people commonly understand the Constitution as being the blueprint of our democracy, nowhere in the document does the word “democracy” – meaning “rule of the people” – actually appear. This project, carried out as a performative piece in various public venues, was designed to engage people in dialogue about the Constitution and underscore the important of reading and understanding our Constitution. While enacting this ongoing project scribing the text of the Constitution on these moneybags, Grossman asks curious onlookers what they cherish about the Constitution. Many American-born citizens will say “the right to bear arms” but don’t seem to know anything else about it. Conversely, she will ask the same question of immigrants, who are forced to study and learn the Constitution in order to earn their citizenship, and learns what they value about it and how they were forced to leave their home countries under duress.

“We have amazing conversations,” she says. “I think it’s a very important project, especially now. Lately, I feel a little bit reticent, especially being out there by myself and not being sure how people will react. The whole situation we are in right now is making us each look at the questions of who are we as a country, who am I as a person, what am I willing to stand for, what am I willing to speak out for. This is a moment of really testing ourselves.

“Since the 2016 election, the covers have been taken off and we have this new opportunity to call things out as they are. The effects of centuries of classism and racism in this nation are erupting. The steam was somewhat vented during the last eight years of President Obama’s term. White people can no longer live comfortably sedated thinking ‘Oh, we have a black president so we don’t have racism anymore.’ Now we are waking up to the inequities and injustices that people of color and immigrants live with on a daily basis. The difficulties that white working class and poor people face have come forward. We realize that we can’t look to our Federal Government to protect our precious natural world. We are now presented with an open creative space to envision our future and work together to build it. People are connecting, speaking out, telling the truth, and standing up for what they believe. This is how I remind myself to remain hopeful.”

CEX 5 Qs

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
As an artist and community builder, I work to create local culture and artworks that connect people. I see my community of Brisbane, California and its local government as a collaborative part of my creative process. I create art and participatory performance because I want to create situations for conversations. I often make art objects and exhibit them or perform with them as a way to set the tone, context, and invite participation.

(2) How do you a start a project?
I listen. I notice when words of wisdom, iconic documents, cultural sayings, history, current affairs, nature, religion, injustices, and the “elephant in the room” collide. I am compelled to respond artistically when the elephant bugs me enough to get started on a project. And then, there is nothing like an invitation to do a show or a deadline to ignite the discipline in me. I especially like to make site-specific work when I can envision the space and the audience who will be interacting with my work.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
My gift is that I make art and create participatory performance art that brings people together to think, explore, share, and remember what we care about. People tend to respond emotionally and remember my artwork. They remind me of what they felt, experienced or connected to. I often hear that they found a new understanding of history, religion, or our place in nature.

As an artist and activist, I help communities understand that the arts and artists can play a central role in every initiative. Our mayor once said to me, “When you walk into a room, everyone gets all creative on us.” For 20 years, I have been organizing arts events, artist showcases, salons, lobbying at City Council meetings for a one percent for the arts program and support for a community performance center. Our Brisbane City government now knows that a vibrant arts and cultural atmosphere is crucial for a thriving economy and sustainable city.

(4) How do you define success?
I feel a sense of accomplishment when I have transformed an abstract idea into art. For me, that means that the artwork must go beyond political agitprop, rhetoric, or one-liners. It becomes art when I have provided opportunities for many layers of diverse understanding and appreciation. I invite viewers to be participants and offer many points of entry for people with varied levels of visual literacy, time, and attention. When I have managed to get people together to think deeply about complex issues and discuss them, I feel like my work is successful. I feel even greater satisfaction when viewers teach me something about my art.

(5) How do you fund your work?
Honestly, I could not do the work I do full time without the support of my husband and parents. I am extremely privileged. That said, I live simply and design my projects to be “HI LI” (high impact, low infrastructure). I try to make sure that my art supports itself. I cobble those funds together with a combination of charging management fees for my traveling exhibits, applying for some small grants, and selling several works of art, although selling objects is not the focus of my work. I often work as a guest artist, present artist talks, and host workshops at universities, museums, religious institutions and community centers nationally and internationally.